Palestinians have not been the Middle East's only victims. We Arabs should recall the many Jews who paid the price for the Arab-Israeli conflict and offer them, too, the right of return.
With Gaza on a knife edge and any prospect of imminent hope dashed, it seems hard to believe that just over two months ago the Arab world dusted off the 2002 Saudi peace initiative and made Israel an offer of comprehensive peace that few thought Israel could refuse. While not rejecting it outright, Israel's visionless and embattled premier, Ehud Olmert, ignored it and wished it would go away.
According to Israeli diplomats, one of the main sticking points is the issue of the right of return of the 4 million or so Palestinian refugees. Israel worries that the Arabs will want to implement UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948, which states that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date” – which would pose fundamental difficulties, since many of these homes no longer exist or have been occupied for generations by others.
For its part, the Arab peace offer does not make any demands on this front beyond stating that a “just solution” needs to be found to the Palestinian refugee problem. One way the Arabs can set in motion a new dynamic and make Israel face up to its responsibilities is by facing up to their own past.
Palestinians have not been the Middle East's only victims of tumultuous forces beyond their control. Another group that got swept up in history's unforgiving currents was the Arab world's once-thriving Jewish minority: the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.
There were some three-quarters of a million Jews living in Arab countries prior to the creation of Israel in 1948. The Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) had a Jewish population of up to half a million; Iraq, up to 140,000; Egypt had up to 100,000; and Yemen, around 50,000. Today, the Jewish populations of most Arab countries number a few hundred or fewer, with the exception of Morocco which still has a few thousand Jews.
Although most Middle Eastern Jews saw Zionism as a remote and alien European dream, about half the Jews who left or were expelled from Arab countries ended up in Israel. The rest went to Europe and the Americas, the largest single group settling in France.
The last few decades have been marked by creative reinvention and collective amnesia. Israel has worked very hard to veil its Arab face, while the Arab world has airbrushed out its Jewish features. But the terms “Arab” and “Jew” are sometimes so fluid that individual members of either group have more in common with each other than their own supposed kin.
Rather like “Jew”, “Arab” is a very loose tag applied to a diverse range of peoples and cultures. It covers the real McAhmed Arab societies of Arabia, as well as the “Arabised” societies of the rest of the Middle East. The only things Arabs share in common are language – and that is not always the case, given the great difficult those from the western reaches of the Arab world have in communicating with those in the east – and to a lesser extent religion, i.e. most but by no means all are Muslim.
Each major Jewish population in the Arab world had its own distinct identity and history. The Iraqi Jewish population is believed to have been the most established, having lived in Mesopotamia since at least the Babylonian exile. In fact, according to Biblical mythology, Abraham was an “Iraqi” who moved to Canaan (modern-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine) and, procreative genius that he was, gave birth to three nations: the Israelites, the Arabs and the Edomites. Bizarrely, “God” also promised old Abe land that was already inhabited for his offspring, without satisfactorily explaining how this would come about or what was to be done with the locals.
Prior to the arrival of Israel, Iraqi Jews were so well integrated that they described themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith. In fact, the early pan-Arabist movement in Iraq included Jews as part of its vision. Things began to sour, however, with the mass immigration of Zionists to Palestine in the 1930s.
Unfortunately for Iraqi Jews and for Iraq, they were being blamed for events they had no part to play in and often disapproved of just because they happened to share the religion of the Zionists in Palestine. They gradually fell victim to increasingly repressive and discriminatory laws. During his short-lived premiership, Rashid Ali al-Kaylani – who was against the British and their puppet Nuri al-Said and hoping that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” wanted Iraq to join the Axis against the British – stoked up anti-Jewish hatred, leading to riots which killed some 200 Jews and convinced most of the rest that it was time to move on.
Although the Arab League states prohibited the emigration of their Jews to Israel in order to deprive the new state of labour and the Jewish population it desperately needed to give the country an eventual Jewish majority, Iraq was the first country to allow the mass exodus of its Jews, who faced harsh living conditions and discrimination at the hands of their superior-feeling European co-religionists. But being well-educated and entrepreneurial, they are now the most successful Mizrahi population in Israel.
In Morocco, the process of linking local Jews to events in Palestine was slower. In fact, during the World War II, Morocco was under the control of Vichy France. In 1941, the Vichy regime enacted anti-Semitic decrees excluding Jews from public functions and forcing them to wear yellow stars of David. King Mohamed V refused to apply the racist laws and defiantly invited all the rabbis of Morocco to his 1941 jubilee celebrations.
Sadly, the beginning of the end began with the 1948 war during which anti-Jewish riots broke out, killing 44 Jews. After that, the country where Iberian Jews and Muslims had taken refuge from the Inquisition and where much of its native Berber population had converted to Judaism prior to the advent of Islam was gradually depopulated of its Jewish community. Today, only 5,000 or so remain. While in Morocco, I visited some of the last remnants of its Jewish community in Marrakech, including the blind rabbi of the city's only remaining synagogue.
If the Bible is anything to go by, Egyptian Jewry is the oldest in the world, and even the Torah attests that the Jews had good times not just bad there. Only decades prior to the creation of Israel, Egypt's indigenous Jewish population doubled through the immigration of Jews escaping persecution in other countries or looking for prosperity. And Jews did not just play an important economic role in Egypt. One of the leading lights of Egyptian anti-British nationalism was the Italian-Egyptian Jew Yaqub Sanu who started the first newspaper in Egyptian Arabic, a rag speciailising in political satire.
But as the partition of Palestine and war loomed ever closer, things also soured in Egypt. Over the coming two decades, Egyptian Jewry fell foul of anti-Zionism, anti-colonialism, pan-Arabism, not to mention anti-Egyptian Zionist intrigue.
An interesting insight into the death throes of this disappeared world, not just of Egyptian Jewry, but also of the excessive aristocracy and privilege of Egypt's pre-revolutionary ruling elite is provided by André Aciman's highly readable Out of Egypt.
While it is impossible to turn back the clock and undo a crime, we Arabs should recall the hundreds of thousands of Jews who paid the price for the Arab-Israeli conflict. We should continue to demand that Israel apologise for the expulsion and exodus of the Palestinians, but we should offer a similar apology to our one-time Jewish populations.
The Arab League should continue to press for a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem, but Arab states which once had Jewish communities should also offer an equivalent “right of return”. Perhaps many Jews, particularly those living in Israel, would not accept this offer, but it is the virtue of the thought that counts.
Besides, many Arab Jews refused to go to Israel and, instead, settled in Europe and the Americas (around half a million, today). Some of these could be coaxed back to Morocco or Egypt – and even, one day, Iraq. And with a restored Jewish minority in Arab countries, the false divisions that Zionism, pan-Arabism and Islamism have tried to impose on our diverse region can be chipped away and exposed for the fallacies that they are.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 23 June 2007.